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Like handwriting, but it actually does reveal who you are
Typography is one of those things that you notice without noticing it, unless you’re one of those people who absolutely loves it. Very few people actually don’t notice when typography is horrible, although a surprising number of them seem to work in sign painting. You can see their work wherever a sign says something like
KITC HENS A ND BAT HROOMS
As it happens, my great grandfather - who later rather grandly announced himself a civil engineer - described himself in a more candid early census as a “carriage and sign painter”. Going by his later career, and his notorious son, I suspect he was part of the great brotherhood of willing souls who’ll take your money and land you with a shop selling hens from the lost city of Kitc and hrooms for the ever-growing portion of the population tragically afflicted with too many bats.
Right now, incidentally, a small number of readers of this newsletter are breathing into a paper bag. I don’t know what the visual equivalent of misophonia is, but they have it and I just triggered the hell out of it.
[There has just been a brief pause in the writing of this document.]
I couldn’t actually leave that hanging - it’s the kind of idea that ends up triggering a book in me - so I had to go and look it up. So far I have two answers: a misophonia-like response to repetitive visual stimuli like someone moving their hand back and forth is called misokinesia; a condition where you get headaches or other physical distress from visual stimuli is just called visual stress.
Once again: welcome to the inside of my head, I definitely was going somewhere before that happened. Hang on… got it -
Typography comes in a variety of weird and unexpected forms. I recently had to have some stone cut, and one of the constraints - which inevitably had not occurred to me - was that the grain and toughness of the stone affected the styling of the type. You can’t generally cut serifed fonts into really hard, rough stone below a certain size even if you are using a diamond. Maybe a plasma arc or a laser or a massively high power water saw. No idea.
[There has just been - NO I need to finish this ANWAY where was I -]
Anyway, I spent quite a long time critiquing the kerning. Getting the relationship between V and I, for example, is quite difficult because they take up different amounts of space and take it up differently. Stonemasons LOVE it when you argue with them about this, because their job is otherwise super-easy***.
In the context of books, I am - inevitably - even more of a pain in the arse. That’s to say that I tend to deploy multiple conventions to indicate different kinds of breaks in the original typescript - a single line to indicate a pause, a page break to indicate the end of a scene, a full chapter break to indicate a new phase of the story, maybe volumes or books within the final narrative if I’m writing something chunky. But I’m not really that consistent about it. My typesetter, then, is the person who patiently unravels this idiocy and creates a flowing document which feels like a book rather than the scratchings of a talented but ultimately chaotic arthropod crawling through a vat of ink onto a ream of paper. This actually has a knock-on consequence in the text: occasionally deprived of my typographical flag for “SIGNIFICANT AND MEANINGFUL PAUSE”, I have instead to convey the tension, or the mutual awareness of subtext, or whatever else I’m eliding, with actual words. It’s usually not a large change, but it can have little ripple effects down the page and generally improves clarity and deliberateness in character and plot in small but not insignificant ways. It all makes a book.
Type took on a slightly different role in GNOMON because I used it in a small way to demark realities. It’s nothing compared with Michael Ende’s Neverending Story having green and red text, or Nicola Barker’s extraordinary H(a)ppy, but I had one typeface for the section about Mielikki Neith and another for the four subsidiary (?) narratives which she sees as orbiting her own for a large part of the book. That turned out to be a problem in the digital context: a lot of people, usually for practical reasons like myopia, change the fonts in their ebooks for ease of reading, and when you do that with GNOMON you can find the closing sections of the story more disorientating than they need to be: something I didn’t foresee and for which there wasn’t - I think still isn’t - a technological solution. It slightly boggles me that there’s no option in the software to redefine two, three, or ten typefaces rather than just one; it’s not as if that’s a massive drain on processing power even for an e-reader. My ongoing conviction is that we’re still dealing with the first and least interesting iteration of the ebook technology, which is surprisingly inflexible and constrained given that real books are the opposite - constantly overflowing their conceptual borders and doing cheeky things with fold-outs, pop-ups, turning into art canvases, and other experimental orthogonalities - and I believe there’s a minor world-changer in the background for whoever can do the second wave of ebooks properly.
The other aspect of typesetting that occasionally crosses my path - and the space in which digital reading technologies have made an often-unheralded difference to real life - is around issues with dyslexia and related factors. One of the most moving letters I’ve ever had was from a guy who wrote to me to say that he was thirty and had never been able to read a novel before, but that with his new e-reader he could enlarge the text and change the fonts to make it work, and he was discovering the joy of books. By whatever route, he’d started with mine. There really isn’t a higher prize in all the world than letters like that.
Coming back to the simpler aspects of the world: in Titanium Noir the type is just doing what type does, with style. In a sense, that’s the first commandment for the book as a whole: do a simple thing, in a straight line, well. Then, yes, it gets polished and laminated to show the layers of thought and concept, but the goal is to do something that is instantly recognisable and perhaps even comfortable. The challenge is in the ideas, and they are sufficiently challenging that they can be delivered without fuss. To me it feels as if the type perfectly captures that. It looks noir-authentic but not obstreperously so. It’s the perfect vehicle for the story it tells.
Incidentally: typography is, of itself, fascinating. I started here…
*** No, obviously not.
Going down rabbitholes so you don’t have to. Although you are absolutely welcome to come.